In Conversation With: Sarah Sikorski – Owner of Lavender Hotels

Earlier this month we interviewed Sarah Sikorski, owner of Higher Trapp House which is part of the Lavender Hotel group to shed some light on the hospitality industry and vision for the future.

So how has the last 12 months from your point of view?

Difficult is probably the best way to describe it.  I don’t think anyone would have predicted a year ago that we would be in the same position a full 12 months on.  Over those 12 months its been something of a roller coaster ride of despair to optimism to dismay.  The good period was obviously the summer when things were getting back to normal and we could allow most guests into the Higher Trapp is a pretty normal way.  The most difficult situation has been the restrictions for weddings.  The effect this is having on us but our partner business’s is dramatic.  But most importantly its on the bride and groom who are constantly worrying and looking to change dates.

Have any of your staff been affected by COVID-19?

Yes, we have had a number of staff that have had it or had to isolate due to contact with individuals who have been recorded as positive.  To be honest we were extremely concerned that the virus could render the hotel team inoperable and we would have to close the hotel.  However, touch wood, we have not had this situation, the staff have been tremendous in observing rules inside and outside of work.

Have you kept the Higher Trapp open?

During the first lock down in March/April we did close the hotel right until early August however we have remained open since.  There is still a demand for hotel accommodation from a lot of workers and the recent floods also meant we had to house a number of people.  Obviously, there are clear rules on who we can and can’t allow to stay but its worth us stay open.  We are providing a service to our guests and the staff that are employed are enjoying it even if the way we have to operate is a little different.

What have you had to change due to COVID-19 in the hotel?

A lot, there is now a lot less face to face contact and social distancing rules were always having to be maintained.  But there have been significant changes to how we check people in, how we service their bedrooms, what we put in the room for the guest to use.  From a food service point of view this has changed a lot over the year.  Currently we just serve food and drink to people’s rooms however when we had the “eat out to help out” scheme we had people on waiting lists.

What are the hotels like inside?

Different, I loved being in the Higher Trapp and feeling the atmosphere of having guests mingle, chat and have fun.  Currently guests pretty much go straight to their bedrooms and generally everything is delivered to their room.  We have tried to maintain our standards, you can still get a full English Breakfast and a freshly cooked evening dinner due to the flexibility of our skilled team, its been great to maintain this when a lot of competitors have reduced their offering.  The response from our customers has been fantastic.

What does you think 2021 holds for the Higher Trapp?

I wish I had a crystal ball.  Normality is what everyone is craving and I am sure that we will be able to operate the Higher Trapp more normally during 2021.  I feel restaurants will be allowed to open again, I also think we will be allowed to holiday freely within the UK.  We just really want to be able to perform weddings again, as do our bride and grooms.

From a hotel perspective I expect 2021 will be very exciting for the hotel, we have some grand plans to improve the hotel and expand what we have to offer involving our restaurant, function room and bedroom space.  We have also decided to come out of the Best Western franchise so that we will be completely independent from them.  This involves a small name change to Higher Trapp House but we have been part of the local community for decades.  Everybody locally at some point or another has been to a wedding at the Higher Trapp.  We are a family within the hotel, owned by a family business and what to be more of the family with our locals and visitors.

Have you had many weddings cancel?

We have had some weddings cancel for a variety of reasons.  As a business we made the decision early on that we were going to offer flexibility for all bookings.  We have kept the vast majority, some got married on the maximum number of 15 or 30 but only a handful cancelled.  Of those that did due to the pandemic we have offered full refunds, at the end of the day this is no ones fault.

Has this cost you a lot of money?

Of course, it has cost us some money, but we are in this for the long haul.  The Higher Trapp is a well established and respected business and we wanted to keep this and build on it.  A lot of the help from Ribble Valley Council and central government has been a huge help.

So you mention you are coming out of Best Western, do they not own the Higher Trapp, what significance does that bring to you?

Funnily enough everyone thinks we are owned by Best Western, for the record they have never owned the Higher Trapp and are simply a franchise that we have now chosen to not be part of.  Best Western have been a good partner for us but we feel its time go out alone once more, we believe there is more value to be gained by being an independent.  It really excites me that this is happening.

Have you any other plans for the Higher Trapp?

I just really want to improve on what we akready have.  As I mentioned before we plan to make improvements in the restaurant, function suite and bedrooms.  We have a great management team at the Higher Trapp and as we build our teams back to normal levels I hope we will be able to further improve our standards.

Do you feel the support from the government has been sufficient?

Oh, difficult question, in part yes I don’t think they have done too badly from a business point of view.  The furlough scheme has been a god send for us and has avoided us having to make even greater cut backs in staffing.  I think the key will be in the future.  Varying industries experience of the pandemic have been very different, some have thrived whilst others have really suffered.  The industries that have suffered should be looked after well beyond 2021 through continued VAT reductions, business rates reductions and even the extension of furlough for specific industries.  The hospitality industry has been hit very very hard and I hope this is taken into account.

Support has also come from the staff we employ within the hotel, they have been brilliant, every one having to turn their hand to different tasks.  Additionally, the support of all our customers has also been heart-warming, there is definitely I feeling of warmth towards our locals and local area as a result of the pandemic.

Do you think the hospitality industry will recover from this?

Absolutely, we will recover.  Its going to take time and we are talking years and years rather than months.  Once you have worked in hospitality you ll know that there is a desire to serve and please our guests.  That has not gone away, we are just eager to be allowed to do it again on the same scale.